Monday, March 14, 2011

How “Berber” Matters in the Middle of Nowhere

    In the rugged mountains south of Marrakech the lives of Berber-speaking farmers move in what seems a timeless rhythm.  Men manipulate intricate stone canals, drawing water to small terraced plots of barley and maize.  Women in bangles and bright scarves lash huge loads of wood to their backs and pick their way down precarious trails.  Fires from family bread ovens send thin tendrils of smoke into the sky; cows low, hungry in their pens.  Young boys throw rocks and lazily tend goats; girls sing as they gather water or fodder or wash clothes in the river, their younger siblings strapped to them.  The people of the mountains seem to live in another Morocco entirely, one absent the car exhaust and noise of urban life, or for that matter even electricity.  The Arcadian surface of village life obscures much, however, both enduring facts like the brutality of physical labor and new developments, a veritable landslide of social, political and economic changes.  These changes are related –but not reducible—to changes occurring elsewhere in Morocco and the world: processes of migration, formal education, and what is often called “development.”  Bearing on these changes is another fact that is central to much of rural Morocco: the people here do not speak Arabic, the national language.
        The linguistic distinctiveness of rural Berbers is not often thought to have much relevance in Morocco, and it’s true that it may be overstated.  But to assert that speaking Berber somehow and sometimes matters is not to say that Moroccan national politics and identity are insignificant, that class and gender are unimportant, that Islam is not central to people’s lives, or that the monarchy is distant and meaningless.  All of these things have their own significance in the everyday lives of mountain people.  But in reacting against a colonial French fascination with the cultural distinctiveness of Berbers, nationalist and anti-colonialist scholars and writers have gone to the opposite extreme.  They have ceased treating the distinctive language of the estimated 40% of Moroccans who are Berber speakers as having any relevance at all.  Urban Imazighen activists (“Imazighen” being the word for what English speakers know as “Berbers”) have been fighting against this, arguing that the Berber language (Tamazight) deserves a more prominent place in Moroccan history and some consideration in educational policy and practice.  Occasionally activists overstate their case, making far-flung claims of Berber unity or lapsing back into colonial era rhetoric of a kind of cultural “Berberstan” wholly apart from the larger Arabic speaking society.  Rarely does anyone have anything dispassionate or specific to say about how Tamazight language use matters in contemporary social and political processes.
    Today it seems fair to assert that the significance of “Berberness” lies somewhere between the all-encompassing and the nonexistent.  Berber language –or in the instance I examine here, the variety of it known as Tashelhit—matters in some ways to most everybody who speaks it, and sometimes it matters in ways might be considered political.  I would not claim the sort of importance I will outline here for all Berber varieties at all times and places, but I will make the case for it in one place at a particular time.  The place is the Agoundis Valley, an out of the way nook of the world less than 100 km south of Marrakech.  It sits at 5000 feet above sea level in a steep and forbidding canyon, but is well watered by snowmelt spilling off the great Ouanoukrim Massif around Jebel Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa.  The time I focus upon is the late 1990s.  There is no cultural activism or fundamentalist Islam.  The people concern themselves mostly with the complicated task of growing enough barley and maize to keep themselves alive, with tending goats and cows, and with harvesting the almonds and walnuts that are their main source of income.  The way that Berber language operates politically in the Agoundis may be idiosyncratic in some ways, but it cannot be entirely so.  The Berber speaking regions of all of North Africa are experiencing many of the same changes as the Agoundis, and the associated relevance of language seems likely to bear comparison.
   by David Crawford